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Flagstaff introduces vouchers for panhandlers

Richard Russler, 77, stands on a corner in Flagstaff, Ariz., on Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2014 asking passers-by for financial help. The Flagstaff Police Department has introduced a voucher program to discourage people from giving cash to panhandlers. (AP Photo/Felicia Fonseca)

Richard Russler, 77, stands on a corner in Flagstaff, Ariz., on Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2014 asking passers-by for financial help. The Flagstaff Police Department has introduced a voucher program to discourage people from giving cash to panhandlers. (AP Photo/Felicia Fonseca)

FLAGSTAFF ai??i?? Richard Russler claims a corner along a Flagstaff street, hoping the steady stream of motorists will net him $40 a day for a hotel room and maybe some food.

He turned to panhandling after his vehicle was totaled during a trip from Kansas to California, and he became stranded in Flagstaff, Russler said. He’s been threatened with assault, heard stories of panhandlers raking in money for drugs and alcohol, and talked with police about his own motives.

“I’ve got legitimate needs, and the officers know it,” he said.

Ever since a federal judge in Arizona ruled that a law criminalizing panhandling in public places is unconstitutional, Flagstaff police say the mountain city has been saturated with people turning to begging as their main source of income. Authorities are hoping a new program announced this week will help people with genuine needs and push out panhandlers who rely on charity to pay for substance-abuse problems.

The program known as “Better Bucks” is modeled after others across the country and encourages people to give panhandlers vouchers for local goods and services and discourages them from handing out cash, police said. A book of five $1 vouchers, which sells for $6, isn’t valid for alcohol or tobacco purchases.

“At least we know what the money is being spent on,” Vicki Burton, director of the Shadows Foundation, said Tuesday. “Your hope is that it falls into the hands of somebody who needs it.”

The book of vouchers also includes a list of social services and a bus pass. A handful of local businesses, including a grocery store and convenience marts, have signed on as participants so far. Only one book can be used per transaction and no change is given.

Flagstaff police previously could arrest people on “loiter to beg” charges. But the American Civil Liberties Union argued in a lawsuit that Flagstaff’s effort to rid the street of beggars was unconstitutional and criminalizes peaceful panhandling in public places.

U.S. District Court Judge Neil V. Wake ruled last year that the anti-begging provision violated free speech rights.

Flagstaff later adopted an ordinance that targets panhandlers’ conduct, rather than their speech. Panhandlers are allowed to politely ask passers-by for donations on public property, but they cannot trespass on private property or solicit money within certain distances of bus stops and banks or within city buses, for example.

Flagstaff police Sgt. Margaret Bentzen said the voucher program allows the community to collaborate on ways to address panhandling and social services rather than it being solely a police effort.

Russler suggested that a permit system for panhandlers would better deter scammers. He said he’s doubtful that the vouchers will result in a decrease of panhandlers in Flagstaff.

“They won’t go to other cities,” he said. “They think this is a gold mine up here because it’s a college town.”

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